AP News, News, Wildland Firefighting

CO Wildfire Becomes Second Largest in State History

Colorado wildfire
Jessy Ellenberger made this photo from the deck of her home north of Granby, Colo., just before sunset on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. Residents in and around a gateway town to Rocky Mountain National Park have evacuated and the park was closed after one of several fires burning in northern Colorado exploded late Wednesday. The damage to the Grand Lake area from the East Troublesome Fire was not clear as of Thursday morning. (Jessy Ellenberger via AP)

By PATTY NIEBERG Associated Press/Report for America

DENVER (AP) — A Colorado wildfire that exploded overnight Wednesday, forced nearby evacuations and closed Rocky Mountain National Park has become the second largest fire in state history.

This means that Colorado’s top three largest fires have occurred during the 2020 season. The fire brewing in East Troublesome has taken over 265 square miles (686 square kilometers) — an area larger than the city of Chicago — and was only 5% contained as of Friday morning.

Noel Livingston, incident commander for the East Troublesome fire, said Friday that they were expecting the fire to grow throughout the day with winds posing challenges to firefighters on the ground and aviation efforts to calm the spread from above.

Colorado’s largest fire in Cameron Peak has burned over 323 square miles (837 square kilometers) and was 57% contained as of Friday.

Livingston said Thursday that there’s a possibility that the state’s two largest fires could merge — since the edges of the two are within 10 to 12 miles (16-19 km) of one another.

“It is a potential and certainly this year has been one of those years where those low potential events seem to be happening with high frequency,” Livingston said Thursday evening.

“I don’t want to say it can’t happen. But right now, it doesn’t appear that it’s going to,” he added.

Damage assessments from the East Troublesome fire were pending as authorities focused on protecting the evacuated resort town of Grand Lake and fighting the fire itself. The only official indication of damages was given on Thursday by Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin who said there had been “lots of structural loss.”

Gov. Jared Polis activated Colorado’s National Guard to assist in any search and rescue operations, conduct aerial reconnaissance of the state’s fires and conduct damage assessment.

Polis said more than 6,500 homes had been evacuated and that officials were working to secure hotel rooms for evacuees from Grand County and the resort town of Estes Park, which was evacuated as a precaution on Thursday. The national park itself was closed as fire encroached on the west and to the north.

Peter Comer who was working a seasonal job at the YMCA in Estes Park said he and some friends weren’t expecting to evacuate until the alert was issued.

“It was pretty hectic ’cause we left in about 20 minutes. We just kind of had to throw our stuff together and pack up and leave,” he said.

Comer said evacuating because of a wildfire was surreal.

“This is the first time I’ve ever had to do anything like this; it’s been a learning experience,” said Comer, who is originally from a small city outside of Des Moines, Iowa. He said the traffic was so bad they were stuck downtown for two hours.

Although the plan is to return to Estes Park, for now Comer is staying at a YMCA camp in Grant until they get permission to return.

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Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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